Thursday, January 7, 2016

Big Crime Lord On Campus

For much of the year 1969, a story arc concerning an ancient petrified clay tablet virtually hijacked the Amazing Spider-Man book and kept our hero busy investigating its theft while trying to keep it out of the hands of two major crime bosses. And small wonder they wanted to possess it--supposedly, the writing on the tablet held the answers to one of the greatest secrets of all time.

The first crime lord to covet that secret would be the Kingpin, who's been keeping a low profile since his ascension to the position of the city's head crime figure was foiled by Spider-Man. But now he's set his sights on the tablet, making its way through the research departments of various universities in the hopes that one of them will be able to decipher its inscription, which dates back hundreds of years. In this story, the tablet happens to be on loan to Empire State University (ESU)--an appearance which would qualify this tale to be among the campus unrest stories which Marvel featured in some of its titles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Yet unlike the story involving the Guardsman that took place in Invincible Iron Man, this one will occur on an actual college campus; and rather than its protests centering on the war, our ESU students will be after nothing but taking the exhibition hall which the tablet will be temporarily displayed in and rededicating it as a low-rent dorm for students once the exhibition of the tablet is concluded. The point of contention that the demonstrators are taking issue with is that ESU plans to instead turn the hall into housing for visiting alumni--which seems a minor enough issue that can be worked out without the use of violence, though if that were the case we wouldn't have much of a story, and certainly an altogether different cover image.

Clearly the Kingpin hasn't abandoned his goal of taking the reins of New York City's underworld mobs, regrouping from his earlier setbacks and likely targeting the tablet in order to give him the edge as he continues his power play. And you would think that putting the snatch on an ancient tablet under minimal guard would be child's play for a man of the Kingpin's resources. But the Kingpin must also continue to secure his own position and reputation in his slow and steady climb to the top. We've already seen him fend off a challenge from one of the mob bosses who made the mistake of questioning the Kingpin's leadership; there's also the matter of the Kingpin's unresolved business with Spider-Man, which continues to infuriate him. So while the tablet is at the top of his to-do list, the Kingpin must constantly make sure to keep his men in line, by continuing to employ the method which has served him well: pure intimidation.

It's not a bad way to vent your anger toward a certain web-slinger, either.

Meanwhile, over at ESU, the protesters are busy making preparations for marching on the exhibition hall. This story also includes the first appearance of Randy Robertson, a recurring character within the mag and son of none other than "Daily Bugle" City Editor Joe Robertson. Having recently met Peter Parker, Randy becomes the story's way of linking Peter to the protest which Randy has taken an interest in, as well as the status of the tablet at the exhibition hall.

The story by Stan Lee unfortunately leaves out a few details about how things reached the state they did, which serves to accelerate the unrest of the group and make their protest more volatile than it really needs to be. There's also the convenient exclusion of Peter from the group (in order to presumably later go into action as Spider-Man); from what we've seen, there's really no good reason for Peter to avoid involving himself in the protest, as he's mainly preoccupied with money worries. There are no real demands on his time; he doesn't even need to race to a crisis as Spidey. Consequently, he doesn't really have much of a leg to stand on when the time comes for the protest to get underway and he still chooses to abstain.

It's a brief but interesting scene, full of things to take an interest in. For one thing, we only learn later that the Dean's reason for not meeting with the group has to do with obstinacy towards students in general, rather than rejection of the actual issue, though Josh seems to assume the worst and whip the other students into a frenzy based on unsupported assumptions. (To be fair to the kids, the Dean isn't exactly in the clear; one has to hope that a university wouldn't make a Dean of someone who closes his door to student input.) Also, now the plan seems to be to take over and shut down the exhibition hall itself, holding it hostage until the group's demands are heard and the media take notice--all without marching on the Dean's office first?

There's also the fact that for the second time, Peter turns on his heel and walks away from involvement with the group, even though he supports what they're striving to accomplish--again, for no apparent reason. So he doesn't want to take sides without getting the whole story? Fine--then how about, say, using his connections at the Bugle to investigate the situation, including an interview with the Dean (who's not likely to ignore a newspaper's coverage)? We could also say the same for Randy, whose father could easily get that ball rolling. Yet we've seen before how Randy prefers to do without the help of his father, avoiding any perceived association with a member of "the establishment." It's never really clear over the span of ASM why Randy is so set on distancing himself from his family, a family that's always proven to be nothing but supportive of his choices, as well as receptive and responsive to his input. It might be as simple an explanation as his wish to be considered his own man, without his father's association with "whitey" casting its shadow on him--which seems to be the case in this particular story.

The presence of the tablet, of course, complicates matters, since it represents leverage for two parties with something to gain: (1) Josh's protest group, whose actions have now crossed the line and put it into direct conflict with law enforcement...

...and (2) a certain crime lord, who sees the protest group's actions as a convenient distraction which will gain him possession of the tablet.

Even at this early stage of the Kingpin's appearances, it's almost astonishing to see him openly take an active part in a raid to obtain an object that he wants stolen. On the other hand, he's still wanted by the law, and hasn't yet established offices and business dealings that would allow him to both hide in plain sight and to cover his tracks.

For all intents and purposes, the protest aspect to this story is put on the back burner, while Spider-Man tends to business. (Aside from the fact that the group's members think that both the Kingpin and Spidey are busting in to stop the group from taking over the hall. It's a shame that the phrase "reality check" wasn't part of the vernacular in 1969.) As for we readers, we're treated to a first-rate Spider-Man/Kingpin fight that it turns out Randy Robertson also wants a piece of.

The Kingpin retaliates by using his cane to blast a wall which Spidey is clinging to. The wall-crawler avoids the burst, but finds he has to act to save Randy from the falling rubble, leaving the Kingpin free to grab the tablet and make his getaway.

In the aftermath, things don't look good for Josh and his friends, who are suspected of collaborating with the Kingpin and must face questions on both that matter as well as the theft of the tablet. All things considered, though, the issue provides a realistic ending to a situation which erupted in chaos.


Spider-Man of course heads off to confront the Kingpin and hopefully retrieve the tablet; but it's only fair to reach ahead a couple of issues and fashion an epilogue that lets you in on how the protest situation was resolved.

(5 will get you 10 that Capt. Stacy and Robbie had a dueling pipes match once everyone cleared out of the room.)

Amazing Spider-Man #68

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Romita
Inks: Jim Mooney
Letterer: Sam Rosen


George Chambers said...

I confess to being ignorant of this era of Spidey. Was the tablet macguffin ever resolved, and was its world changing secret ever revealed?

Comicsfan said...

Indeed it was, George, and rather tragically. Someday the PPOC will probably get around to the rest of the story, but you can join it mid-point right about here.

B Smith said...

One thing about this issue, the drawing of Spidey on the cover was used over and over in various bits of promo material for years afterwards....and why not, it's a beaut.

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